LGBT teens discover a Lake Huron haven at Rainbow Camp

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On a cold late August morning, 14-year-old Max Yemelyanov huddles into a circle of groggy teens, some still wrapped in their blankets. A homemade rainbow flag flaps in the brisk wind as more young people trickle out of their cabins and gather around.

There’s a welcome practicality to the morning ritual. “Everyone rub their hands together, let’s create some warm vibes,” shouts a cheery counsellor.

Another day at Rainbow Camp is about to begin.

“I hope every queer kid should be able to have this experience of knowing that they are not alone in the world,” says Yemelyanov, a transgender camper who identifies as male. Yemelyanov is from Virginia but this Canadian camp is the closest place he’s found to feeling like home.

“Being around so many other kids that are just like you is something you can recreate everywhere else, it’s just an amazing experience and it makes you feel that much more validated.”

Nestled in northern Ontario, on the shores of Lake Huron, Rainbow Camp gives LGBT kids a place to connect with themselves and each other. Since it opened five years ago, it’s become a haven for teens struggling with their sexuality and identity.

Rainbow Camp, Harry Stewart

Camp founder Harry Stewart wishes there had been a similar place when he grew up in nearby Thessalon, Ont. (CBC)

“The biggest change was the amount of trans kids that we have,” says camp founder Harry Stewart. “We’ve gone from just having a couple to last week, I’d say it was about 95 to 98 per cent trans.”

Stewart created the camp because he wishes there had been a place like it when he grew up in nearby Thessalon, Ont.

As a gay man still living in that small town he remains acutely aware of how hard it is to come out and to be out.

“A lot of our campers are really looking for love and respect. … I mean, we’re only 50 miles away from Sault Ste. Marie, and my husband and I, we don’t hold hands anywhere. It just doesn’t feel safe. So, I just look at these kids and think, for them it’s got to be that much harder.”

Rainbow Camp

A homemade rainbow flag flies at Rainbow Camp on Lake Huron. (CBC)

The increase in transgender campers, Stewart says, may be due to more awareness in general about being transgender and, although there are other camps for LGBT teens in Canada, this is the only one that focuses on the kids having fun.

Sure, there’s swimming and canoeing and bog runs, but not much else is typical. Campers are assigned to cabins by age, not gender. Same goes for bathrooms.

And then there are activities like Grave Digging, where they can bury their former gender identities, and Makeup with Mya, a makeup lesson with a drag queen from Toronto. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to step further into an emerging identity or simply try one on.

‘Everyone has the ability to try out new names and different names.’ — Dawson Rumley, counsellor in training

Dawson Rumley, 19, a former camper and now a counsellor in training, says the camp helped him embrace the fact that he is gay.

In five short days he sees kids transformed. “They came into camp with a name and left with a new name, new identity,” says Rumley. “They find a safe space to do it here. Everyone has the ability to try out new names and different names.”

Safe space is a mantra here, and a much-needed one. Many of the campers struggle with anxiety and depression.

The rate of attempted suicide among transgender youth in particular is staggeringly high, four times higher than for youth in general, according to studies cited by Egale Canada Human Rights Trust.

Then there’s the typical adolescent stuff all teenagers go through.

Rainbow Camp, Lilith Wall

‘Here it’s like the norm to be whoever you are and however you want to express yourself,’ says Lilith Wall, 13. (CBC)

At this point in her life, 13-year-old Lilith Wall identities as a bisexual female, but her body image fluctuates.

“Because everyone else seems so perfect, right? So you think everyone else is thinking about you whenever you do something, right?” says Wall. “The reality is that everyone is too busy thinking about themselves to think about you.”

Wall says she can’t take for granted the sense of acceptance she finds at the camp. At the camp’s annual Rainbow Dance, Wall joins the rest of the campers letting loose to wildly popular songs like Despacito. It’s the first time many can express themselves this freely, the first time they are simply going to a dance with their peers, as themselves.

“At home, yeah it’s a little iffy and definitely outside,” says Wall. “I feel like people are going to look at me for wearing like, wacky colours of makeup, but here it’s like the norm to be whoever you are and however you want to express yourself.”

Shedding a ‘dead name’

For Max, shedding his “dead name,” Mary Alice, has been a journey that’s often left him anxious. This is the second time he’s come to Rainbow Camp, which he calls a lifeline.

“A lot of these kids, like they could be the only out or the only queer kid in their school, that they know of. … We’re all bonded by that one thing. And from there, we’re able to just form these experiences together. … Within one week, people become your family.”

Demand is high because of the camp’s fun focus and because it is relatively affordable.

Fundraising holds down the cost

Last year’s fundraising efforts raised $100,000 and allowed the camp to offer two one-week sessions for the first time. The money not only holds the cost of a session to $350, it also covers the cost for campers who can’t afford it. The hope is to raise enough money to add a third week next year.

In the campers’ closeness in exchanges and in group activities, the hunger for a sense of belonging is evident.

So is the joy in finding it. Stewart’s eyes well up as he talks about it.

“It makes it all worthwhile, you know, the hours that we put in trying to make camp successful, to get the funding. … I would like to say they’re changing their lives.”

He concludes, “You know, we are making a difference.”

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LGBT teens discover a Lake Huron haven at Rainbow Camp

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